Of all the offences committed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, none could have been graver than its criminal level stinginess with maestro composer Hans Zimmer. With over 140 films that he’s scored for and 10 Oscar nominations, Zimmer has won it only once so far: for The Lion King (1994).
This, after composing for films such as The Dark Knight trilogy, Gladiator, Dunkirk, Crimson Tide, Kung Fu Panda, Interstellar, Inception, Sherlock Holmes, 12 Years a Slave, As Good As It Gets, The Last Samurai and so many, many more. His most recent release Dune is making waves for its unique sound, making it a stronger contender for an Academy Award.
How the Oscar has evaded Zimmer so far, while incredulous, doesn’t dent the immeasurable legacy that the German composer-producer has given to the world of scoring for cinema. The awards themselves are not an accurate way to measure one’s work, especially since the person in question has made contributions so historic that it has caused a paradigm shift in how films are scored.
For someone who couldn’t bear the discipline that came with formal piano lessons, Zimmer is a self-taught maestro of epic proportions, much like the protagonists in many of the superhero or sci-fi films that he’s immortalised with his music. When he made his debut in the ’80s, Zimmer adhered to the melody-rich requirements of the time (think Tennessee from Pearl Harbour). With more projects coming his way, he decisively started to shift towards a more aggressive but subtle score that was characterised by a powerful crescendo that somehow doesn’t always resolve. It became the inimitable sound of the modern mega blockbuster flick that could either be set on another planet, in the trenches of a bygone war or in the quirk of an animated panda.
Having worked on a range of films, Zimmer has been able to showcase his own vast arsenal of influences to draw from, merging diverse genres and instruments, cultures and crafts to create what at first seem simple themes but eventually unfold into masterpieces that affect you at a primeval level. In the process, the music and the movie are intertwined so intricately that it’s hard to tell them apart.
Take the example of The Lion King. You cannot listen to …To Die For and not be moved to tears by the end, reimagining how you felt when a stampede of wildebeest and the malevolence of Scar kills Mufasa, and Simba discovers that his father who saved him, has died. Goosebumps, really.
The Dark Knight was as much a film about Heath Ledger’s Joker as it was about Zimmer’s eerie, menacing theme that ran successfully through the film, heightening the drama and dread in the air. So many people find the opening fight sequence in Kung Fu Panda to be its most iconic, but it wouldn’t be as spectacular without the amazing track Hero that matches Po’s every move. There’s so much hope and heroism in the film but one cannot deny the sadness that permeates through many of the scenes and the characters.
Gladiator’s Elysium is a glorious track that is ethereal in vibe as it celebrates the valiant death of lead man Maximus after he kills Commodus. He has avenged his family and can now be at peace. Zimmer thrives in creating tension and resolving peace, and particularly relishes in leaving an echo hanging. You can’t help but be affected by the tautness and tension of the moment when Matthew McConaughey tried to dock his ship onto a spinning station in Interstellar. Even if you didn’t understand the film, you grasped its music. (Special mention: Zimmer’s collaborations with Christopher Nolan are superlative.)
And then you have a film like The Holiday, which incidentally features Jack Black playing a film composer who extols the virtues of John William. His Arthur’s Theme has cast such a sure imprint in our minds that it has become an instant pick-me-upper for us too.
Zimmer meant bigger, bolder, but paradoxically understated. You could recognise that Hans Zimmer sound in any film you watched, which over time wasn’t always the best thing. His critics have frequently called him out for his typical homogeneity in films but that hasn’t bothered him so much.
Which is why Dune’s release is an important milestone for the composer who also had a recent release in the form of Daniel Craig’s final outing as Bond, No Time to Die. Given how formulaic the expectation of a Bond flick can be, with Dune, Zimmer has had a sonic carte blanche to create music that is truly out of this world. And galaxy even.
Steering clear of sounding like the other intergalactic movies he’s surrounded by and wanting to not resort to the typical strings and French horn fare of sci-fi, Zimmer has created an immersive soundscape that is a crucial part of the narrative. Delving into the voices of ancestors to create a futuristic experience is as contradictory as it is revolutionary. Using hydrophones to capture the sound under the sand, this mining process was extrapolated onto the storytelling experience. Instruments both ancient and modern from around the world have been used and their sounds reinterpreted to create a truly new world and order.
Songs like Leaving Caladan and Ripples in the Sand are rousing, thought-provoking, meditative and chaotic, echoing the turmoil on the screen and within the actors. His stirring song Bene Gesserit resonates thoroughly with the inspiring message of Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear in the eponymous book that inspired the movie Dune. “And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path / Where the fear has gone there will be nothing / Only I will remain.” The instrumental piece starts slowly before reaching a crescendo that leads into a tumultuous coda and ending in an extended single note and then silence; almost as if to highlight how all that remains is you.
While people often praise the science and technology in sci-fi flicks, they have almost always been rooted in ancient philosophies from around the world. From Star Wars to Star Trek, The Matrix series, superhero films and the Nolan school of hyperintellectual being, esoteric spiritual principles form the crux of a cinematic struggle and the fuel for a grand triumph. It may sound confusing at first but the music is unmistakably clear.
For the beauty of Hans Zimmer lies in his extraordinary ability to help you make peace with a film even if you can’t make sense of it. That alone is Oscar-worthy.